The first in an award-winning series of interviews with Korean theater professionals, first published in The Dong-A Ilbo.
The first question: Are you aggressive?
“I don’t mind the word. Put another way, it means I’m persistent and I delve deeper into things. I might dislike it if someone told me that I was simply a aggressive person, but I’d appreciate it if they told me I’m aggressively involved in the theater.
But you said you didn’t like being called “notorious in Daehak-ro for being meticulous”.
“I’d like to change that. When we were putting on Geum-nyeo and Jeong-hee (2008), the promoter put the phrase in to make me a ‘thing’. But I’d like for people to see me for my work.”
When I read her play No. 1-28, Chasuk’s House, I felt that she puts a lot of effort into expressions. While other playwrights tend to simply use ‘Act 1’, ‘Act 2’, ‘Act 3’, and so on, she always includes subtitles: ‘1. Bare ground—the foundation is slanted (No. 1-28, Chasuk’s House)’, ‘2. Adventure Insurance (Not a Love Story)’, ‘3. Truth begets lies (Love, Noble and Pure)’, and ‘4. Tries on her husband’s clothes—house (Bless Her)’. Think about that. She does this even though the audience will never know.
Who is this person? She is Choi ZinA (48), a playwright and a director. She is also the head of Theater Company Nolddang. I met her at the offices of The Dong-A Ilbo on April 26, 2017.
1. Note—Like a whip, like a candy
There was a reason I asked her if she were “aggressive” out right. I’d read her previous interviews, and she was a very active and aggressive director. That was what gave me an image of an aggressive person. She was small and had delicate features, yet she was described as aggressive. I think I assumed that it would make a great story.
At the center of her aggressive reputation was ‘note’. ‘Note’ is theater lingo. It refers to the process through which the director evaluates and analyzes her own work after it plays on stage and gives feedback to her actors. To people not in theater, this process is akin to a ‘review’. So if a director takes ‘notes’ diligently, her actors are bound to end up exhausted.
“I thought a lot about whether to take notes or not. Some directors don’t go see their play once it’s staged. I go, write things down, analyze, and tweak the scenes. I especially want to make changes for original works and premieres. If there’s a lot to unpack, after about a week, I either call the actors together or visit them in the dressing room.” She said she hasn’t clashed much with actors so far.
Choi was the first director I met who wrote plays and directed them herself, so I really wanted to ask one snobby question, about the difference between directing her own work and another person’s work.
“It’s difficult to choose a play. Directing is like asking the play a question, but there are times when I want to talk about myself. When that happens with a play of my own, I can simply fix it myself. But when I ask ‘why?’ while directing someone else’s play, I have to ask the writer, and that’s difficult. In the end, you just have to interpret it yourself. It’s particularly hard for original plays. You constantly come across weak links, and directors have to fill the gaps. You have to find the reason the writer wrote the way they did. I read Albert Camus’ Caligula without references, but I had a clear idea of what he was doing. I was almost euphoric.”
Then she said, “It takes a lot of energy to put one play on stage. I don’t get a lot of commissions to direct plays to begin with, but even if I did, I’d prefer to write.”
What are actors to a director? And what does it mean for a director to choose actors?
“I’ve become less sensitive to it now, but it was difficult at first. The world of actors is different from mine. But I have to ask them to act out my world. Actors can act when they internalize what they have to act. So when actors have thoughts that are different from mine, then the actors suffer, and I suffer as I watch them. In the beginning, I forced my thoughts on them mostly, but now I try to bridge the gap or change the direction or method. There are times when actors try to be understanding. But there are still other problems.”
What does director Choi ZinA want to give to her audience through her plays?
“I want to move their hearts. I don’t want them to be simple heartwarming experiences but I want to move their hearts through awareness. And by awareness, I don’t mean knowledge, but sensitivity, sight, tolerance, and the like.”
2. Playwright—Looks great
Choi was first an actor who then became a director and a playwright, and now she is also the head of a theater company. I asked her which position she liked most.
“It’s cool to be a playwright. A playwright has an origin. She has stories she wants to tell. A playwright can create thinking, ideas, awareness, and perspectives, and also discover them. That’s what I try to do as well.”
Where do you find the materials for your plays?
“Before the Sewol ferry tragedy, I was most interested in what was the most impressive, the most curious, the thing that comes to me out of the blue, or the things that are the most difficult to solve. I wondered at the curiosity they aroused in me and wanted to explore them. But after the Sewol ferry incident, I am now thinking about how to deal with grief as a society.”
What kind of plays do you want to write in the future?
“I want to write about contradictory, decadent things, things where people wonder whether humans should do something like that. (Do you mean to say that you want to write them but can’t because of certain obstacles?) No. I can write them. But I can’t live that way. Actually, when I first started, I wanted to create plays that give satisfaction to hardworking people, to move their hearts. But now I think that I’m more suited to plays that make them uncomfortable.”
Her answer made me recall her earlier works. But this part requires explanation. It would be unfair if people thought that in making hardworking people uncomfortable, Choi means to ignore them. I understood it as her ‘training’ diligent people, to make them even more diligent.
Previously, Choi said something similar.
“I think it is important for people to put effort into developing their bad sides. That way, you can come to accept and embrace others. Of course, if you go beyond that, you’d be able to encounter the better side of yourself as well. Shouldn’t we acknowledge the conflicting feelings in our own hearts and the hidden impulses other people have?” (The Korean Theatre Review, June 2006)
Now then, let us go meet some of these people with “bad sides”.
3. Welcome to ZinA World
3-1. About the “bad women”
Women in Choi’s earlier works are people who might exist somewhere on this earth but aren’t your typical dramatic characters. I affectionately decided to call them “bad women”.
Her debut play, Not a Love Story (2004), features an insurance saleswoman who breaks up with her boyfriend to protect herself from becoming even more dependent on him; Love, Noble and Pure (2006) features an architectural designer who enjoys dating two men at the same time while feigning innocence; Bless Her (2006) features a woman who has been married for 13 years and lacks nothing in life cheating on her husband with her dance teacher.
They talk about and enjoy sex candidly, no holds barred. Seong-hee, the name of the main character of Love, Noble and Pure, probably derives from seonghee (性戱), meaning ‘sex play’, while the Seon-yeo, the name of the main character of Bless Her, hints at her being no seonyeo (‘heavenly woman’).
The titles of her plays are also paradoxical. Not a Love Story, through which Choi wanted to explore the main character’s growth, is definitely a love story, and Love, Noble and Pure features no one who is involved in noble and pure love. The married woman in Bless Her isn’t a person who deserves a blessing. Yet Choi has things to say, and it seems she intends to spotlight them by making the audience feel uncomfortable and unfamiliar.
In another interview, Choi explained, “We tend to glorify sex or hide it behind a veil, but I wanted to show it explicitly.” In other words, she wants to provoke people and expose everything.
“Choi ZinA’s earlier plays are studded with hidden charms, such as rebelliousness, the desire to quit jobs or love if compelled or if something goes wrong, and the life and courage to turn the tables.” (Kim Bang-ok, play critic).
Coincidentally, the main characters of this rebelliousness are all women. Are you attracted to bad women?
“No, I’m attracted to good women (laughs). I’ve lived all my life as a good student, a good woman, but I think that was wrong. What is mine has been banned and denied. In order to recognize as mine the things that ban and deny me, we have to expand the scope of what is right.”
Let’s talk about philosophy in a secular way. Say you received good grades in school, and didn’t consider the kids who didn’t receive good grades as your friends. But when you stepped out into the real world, kids who’d received 60 and 70 on exams were doing fine, and they actually treated you like a naive fool. Sometimes they are right. What kind of relationship should you have with the world? Should you fight against the world, holding fast to your convictions, or should you accept what you thought was wrong as right and compromise? Choi ZinA leans toward the latter. (That’s how I understood her).
Note: Davinci Code in the Bad Women Trilogy
There are several scenes in Not a Love Story, Love, Noble and Pure,and Bless Her that give you a feeling of déjà vu. This isn’t very strange, considering all three plays were written by the same playwright. However, in order to understand Choi ZinA as a playwright, I think it is necessary to ask her about them at some point. Because I believe that there is something that makes her write similar scenes.
First, Choi ZinA makes the male characters that the heroines are involved with meet in reality or in dreams. In real life, people do anything to avoid such confrontations (when the two men in the plays meet, they tend to be hostile to each other, which is realistic.) In Love, Noble and Pure, Hyeon-ho and Jae-u, and Jae-u and Chang-su meet, while the husband and the dance teacher meet in Bless Her. The married woman in Bless Her even prepares and plans for her husband and her lover to meet (although it doesn’t work out the way she intends).
Second, the main characters hit each other. In Not a Love Story, Seon-hee and Seok-yeong play rock, paper, scissors and the loser hits the winner; in Love, Noble and Pure, Hyeon-ho and Jae-u meet and get into a physical fight in slow motion. Bless Her actually ends with the husband and wife slapping each other. How can we interpret this act of ‘hitting’? These actions have different meanings depending on the play. They can be interpreted as a punishment to the uncontrollable self (Not a Love Story), a confirmation of real emotional conflicts (Love, Noble and Pure), or a cleansing ritual for restoring a broken relationship (Bless Her)… but I’m not sure.
Third, all three plays feature pedestrian crossings and traffic lights.
Love, Noble and Pure ends with the main character Seong-hee standing in the middle of a crosswalk on a red light. I accepted the ending as Seong-hee, who had longed to grow through a change in situation, ultimately failing to.
The pedestrian crossing in Bless Her has a different meaning. The answer lies in the husband’s monologue as he watches Seon-yeo running across the crossing.
“Remember? The day after we met on a blind date, you were caught in the middle of the street between the lights, just like today. You were frozen then, but when did you learn to run?… Now you are at an age when your comfort comes before your consciousness of other people’s eyes on you. I like it, but it also makes me sad…” In this play, the pedestrian crossing signifies growth, independence, and escape.
3-2. About the things that are not women
After the Bad Women trilogy, Choi ZinA’s works changed out of the blue.
A major example of the change is No. 1-28, Chasuk’s House (2010). This play earned Choi the Dong-A Drama Award, a Top 7 Plays of the Year award in the Korean Drama Awards, and a Daesan Literary Award, drama category. (Choi also received a Top 3 Korean Plays of 2016 award selected by critics (Love, Noble and Pure), the Grand Prize in the 2015 Seoul Theater Artists Awards (Caligula), and 2016 Play of the Year from the Performance and Theory Critics Group (Oedipus—Those who want to know)).
Did Choi ZinA abandon feminism?
“I wasn’t practicing feminist writing to begin with, so I didn’t think about writing about something that isn’t feminist either… I don’t write plays that fall into one of the “isms”. I thought of No. 1-28, Chasuk’s House while watching the construction of a house.” (scenePLAYBILL, September 2014).
Why a house of all things?
“The subject of ‘house’ was very interesting to me. We look at most things from the perspective of a human being, but when we look at something as is, it can become the product of a type of reconciliation or wisdom. I wanted to look at ‘house’ as an object in that way. That was the reason I wanted to show people the process of building a house… When we learn how much care goes into these creations, we’ll be able to broaden our perspectives and have a more meaningful attitude toward life.” (Korea Arts Management Service, August 2011).
So Choi clearly states in the play that “the house is the main character in this play.” It is like a documentary in that it shows the detailed process of building a house. It is also interesting that there are several scenes where actors explain the history behind the materials necessary for building a house—dirt, stones, water, concrete, rebars— as well as the construction process itself.
In Geum-nyeo and Jeong-hee (2008), Choi ZinA depicts a heartwarming relationship between a mother and daughter who clash at times but are there for each other. This play is dramatically different from the aggressive and voracious discourse on sex.
Another of her plays is Bon·Da (2012). This play is about the act of watching. It is entertaining if you watch it without thinking too much, but it becomes difficult when you try to understand it. So Choi seems to have been successful in what she intended.
While it is difficult to understand the meaning of “simply watch without thinking” and “watch what you see as is”, phrases that come up constantly in Bon·Da, I had no problem understanding the ‘listening’, or the ‘simply listening without thinking’. What magic is this? Perhaps it is because we have at some point in time closed our eyes intentionally to listen to the wind, water, and birds.
3-3. About families
On the first page of Choi’s play No. 1-28, Chasuk’s House are four words: “To my beloved mom”.
I don’t know what other people might think of reading Choi’s works with a focus on ‘families’, but one thing is certain: readers and the audience read and see what they want to read and see. Choi ZinA explained that Chasuk’s House is a play that emphasizes physicality, but I would like to mention that I was moved by the families who encountered such physicality. This is not to say that her directing was off; rather it is an unexpected gain. (I also liked the stage and the set that showed the process of building a house. It must have taken a lot of thought).
The idea for this play originated from the time she built the house in her hometown of Imsil in 2007, and I’m sure that the images of her real family have been projected onto the characters. And the same probably goes for Geum-nyeo and Jeong-hee.
I asked her if she has a favorite from the works that didn’t receive awards. A bit hesitantly she mentioned Hong-jun is a Pharaoh and added that it was a story about her third older brother.
To the question about her talent, she immediately brought up her father (he passed away in 1995, around the time Choi joined the theater troupe Yeonwoo Stage).
“I hope that I have talent. If I have sensitivity, it’s from my father. He was a farmer from Imsil, North Jeolla Province. He was sensitive and had a lot of love. When I didn’t close the door, he’d scold me saying, ‘Why do you not wrap things up properly?” rather than saying “close the door”. When I was in elementary school, he’d look at the famous paintings or pictures printed in newspapers and tell me about how “such and such tree didn’t need to be there” or how “such and such things result in this kind of composition”. He also read my writings. He gave me a lot of motivation.”
I was curious if her family often saw her works.
“My family loves me. But that doesn’t mean they have to see my plays. My plays show my deepest thoughts. I’m okay with them not seeing my plays.”
It seems that she is still standing on the crossing facing her family. Or perhaps she doesn’t want to grow and leave the crossing. No matter how others honk and beep.
4. Shouting drama in the center of the world
The question about how one joined the theater world is a staple. Choi ZinA graduated from Wonkwang University with a degree in dentistry and even opened a clinic before entering the theater world. (Choi asked me several times not to mention this, because she didn’t want things other than her plays and directing to become a topic of conversation. But this has been already reported by other media, so I am writing it here lest anyone doubt my background research skills.)
She first encountered theater in her university drama club. She couldn’t shake off its appeal. At the age of 27, she served as an assistant director at Yeonwoo Stage for two years and finished a graduate program in theater at Dongguk University. In 2004, she wrote and directed Not a Love Story and began her career as a playwright and director. In the same year, she created Play Rehearsal Room Nolddang by herself, and in 2016, she took in six actors and officially registered Nolddang as Theater Company Nolddang at the National Theater Association of Korea.
Choi couldn’t get used to “waiting” at Yeonwoo Stage.
“I wanted to play the lead, but they wouldn’t give me those roles, so it was discouraging (laughs)…Then I thought I should try directing. It was difficult to choose a play, and I found myself wanting to adapt works, so I was thinking that perhaps I should write a play. Around that time, I saw that some of my close colleagues Son Gi-ho, Kim Nak-hyeong, Yun Jeong-hwan and others both directing and writing. And I decided that I should write my own plays and direct them, like they were doing. (Webzine Yeongeukin, Kim Eun-seong’s Play Date, July 2012)
What is the meaning of theater in this age? Choi explained the meaning of theater itself, the meaning of theater in this age, and the meaning of the encounter between theater and the audience.
“First, about the meaning of theater, it is really different from other art genres in terms of the work process and the way it is presented to the audience. And that will never change. It’s really a great thing. Although there will be successes and failures…”
Here, I’d like to mention what Choi once said to her nephew (niece).
“Want to go see a play? People talk right in front of us. Where else could you see something like that? A painting? TV? Movies? In plays, people on stage speak directly to you. They tell you things you don’t see in everyday life. So how about it? Want to go see a play?”
About the meaning of theater in this age, she said, “The meaning of it has changed since the Sewol ferry tragedy. The tragedy deepened the question about the meaning of theater in history.”
What does it mean to the audience?
“People have diverse emotions and desires. I believe a play shows not only a well-paved highway but that there are many different kinds of paths. And when we are able to talk about the world properly, audiences are enriched. And as such audiences grow, society becomes even more diverse. There are many obstacles in society, such as norms, morals, ethics, and customs. And many people get hurt and suffer because them. If people can learn from plays that they can be liberated, this society will become a better place.”
Her thoughts on audiences have changed somewhat from when she first entered the field.
“In the past, I thought it was fine when three out of ten people in an audience thought a play was great. But these days, I truly appreciate it when many people enjoy a play of mine. Before, I didn’t care about the size of the audience. But now, when there aren’t many people who come to see my plays, when there aren’t any articles on the plays, and when even the people in the field don’t come see the plays, I think, ‘Who am I? What is my work?’ That said, when there are even a small number of people who experience my work deeply, I think that’s valuable.”
Then Choi added, “Plays need to create a sensation in order to respond to society, but we’re not there yet. Personally, though, I am reaping rewards from plays.” And her rewards are happiness, belonging, a sense of accomplishment, and the like.
Last question. What kind of director do you want to be?
“I want to hear people say, ‘That director is real. That director delves into the truth.”
At the conclusion of the interview, I was left with these thoughts:
Choi ZinA seems to thirst for something new. Starting with herself, she distances herself from what is familiar to her and boldly provides the audience with uncomfortable perspectives and awarenesses, thereby allowing the people who watch her plays to break out of their shells and open their eyes to new things.
When I told her what I thought, she said, “That sounds about right.”
No. 1-28, Chasuk’s House ends without finishing the construction of the house. Choi ZinA—she’s also incomplete. She is a playwright and a director, but to the audience she is also an actor. An actor who must work toward completion on stage.
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